AKRON-NASCAR driver Mark Martin says he doesn't feel as safe on the Winston Cup racetracks this year due to the so-called tire war brewing between Goodyear and Hoosier Racing Tire Corp. Like all the Winston Cup drivers, Mr. Martin is caught up in a game of one-upmanship as Goodyear and Hoosier battle it out for tire supremacy. The competition has resulted in softer tires, faster speeds-and apprehension among drivers and race teams.
It's the first time since the 1988-89 season-when Hoosier made its first abortive attempt at Winston Cup racing-that Goodyear has had competition on NASCAR's top circuit. Prior to 1988, Goodyear had Winston Cup to itself for a stretch of 17 years.
The competition, which began in February at the Daytona 500, is causing both Goodyear and Hoosier to come to each race with new-and hopefully improved-tires. But drivers are facing ``new tires with new designs that react differently,'' Mr. Martin said, ``so we have to deal with these changing circumstances at each race.
``From a competitor's point of view, most of (the drivers) would rather not deal'' with that.
Controversy and concern over the tire competition escalated right from the start.
Hoosier pulled its tires from the Daytona 500 when Hoosier President Bob Newton said they weren't competitive with Goodyear's. That followed the deaths of Neil Bonnett and Rodney Orr-both riding Hoosiers-in separate accidents during practice runs. While racing observers never fully blamed the tires in the accidents, it was a blemish on Hoosier's record.
Another problem-this time involving Goodyear-arose at the TranSouth 400 race in Darlington, S.C., at the end of March. The softer tire compounds used to gain an edge in speed resulted in tires that wore quickly. Goodyear nearly ran out of tires there, causing some race teams to scramble to buy tires from other drivers.
Following the race, several Goodyear drivers spoke out against the tire war.
Goodyear's Leo Mehl, director of racing, said he sympathizes with the drivers, but the company won't back away from the competition.
When Goodyear had a monopoly on the Winston Cup, it could bring the same tire to the tracks three years in a row. Now, when the race is over, the tire is ``instantly obsolete because we'll have a new tire next time,'' Mr. Mehl said.
Mr. Newton contends what prompts most drivers' complaints is the potential impact on their pocketbooks....``We are the wild card in this thing,'' he said, ``and they (drivers) don't want it because they're not part of it. They don't like anyone changing the game plan.''
Bill Gaut, manager of Jasper Motor Sports, which uses Hoosiers, concurred. ``If all drivers drove the same, and all the cars were on one brand,'' soon all cars would be identical and ``that's not what racing is all about.''
Amid complaints of the potential lack of safety on the track, both Goodyear and Hoosier have stressed that safety is the No. 1 factor in their tire development.
And Mr. Newton believes Hoosier is ``right on the edge of winning.'' The company has built a 100,000-sq.-ft. facility in Lakeville, Ind., dedicated to racing radial production and is building garages at 18 racetracks across the U.S.